History of Pemaquid Point Light

about-museumPemaquid occupied the position of principle city of the new world in the New England area. Activity had become so great at Pemaquid around 1600 that while the Pilgrims were struggling for life at Plymouth, Pemaquid was probably the busiest place on the coast. Here, then, lived an active and prosperous people where trading was brisk and the fishing productive to the extent of being regarded as an industry.

In spite of Maine’s harsh coast justifying navigational aids for this major industry,it was not until 1826 that President John Quincy Adams commissioned and Congress appropriated $4,000.00 to build a lighthouse station at Pemaquid Point, Maine having become the major source of timber for the new ships as well as the home of many a merchant mariner.

Samuel and Sarah Martin sold a few acres on Pemaquid Point to the Federal government for $90.00 on June 29, 1827. Maine’s Superintendent of Lighthouses, Isaac Ilsley contracted with Jeremiah Berry, a Thomaston brick layer, “to build, finish and complete a lighthouse and dwelling house at Pemaquid Point” for a price of $2,800.00.

The original lighthouse was described by Hilda Libby in her “A Guide to Pemaquid Point Lighthouse”: “the tower was to be of suitable split, undressed stone; the form round, the foundation to be sunk as deep as may be necessary to make the whole fabric secure; all to be laid in good lime mortar. The base of the tower to be eighteen feet, and at the top, ten feet. The walls were to be three and one half feet thick and to be uniformly graduated to two feet at the top, where an arch was to be turned, on which there was to be a disk of soap stone eleven and a half feet in diameter, five inches thick, fitted with a scuttle by which to enter the lantern, the glassed-in section that housed the light itself. There was to be a circular stair of hard pine, clear of sap, seasoned and planed, with an iron ladder at the top reaching to the scuttle”. The original keeper’s house was a 34 feet by 20 feet one story stone structure with 18 inch thick walls. It consisted of two rooms with a chimney up the middle with a fireplace in each room.

Apparently, the original tower was defective and eight years after it was built, in 1835, a new contract was drawn up with Joseph Berry, mason of Georgetown, to “rebuild, finish and complete the tower at Pemaquid Point”. The specifications and instructions were identical in almost every way to the original ones, except for one or two curious directives: “the whole to be laid in the best lime mortar; the same to be used never to have been wet with salt water; the mortar to be mixed with fresh water”. It was also specified that the walls of the tower were to be of solid stone and mortar and not to be done by building two walls and filling in the middle. The price of the new tower, using “existing materials” was $1,395.00.

There is a postscript, later added to the contract, which suggests that either an outstanding job was done or that Mr. Berry wanted full protection against any future comebacks for sloppy work. The postscript, in the handwriting of Isaac Dunham, first keeper of the Pemaquid Light, states: “this may certify that Capt. Berry has completed the Light House in a good workman like manner and according to the Contract in every way – and I will venture to say, a better Tower and Lantern never was built in this state. Also the
lamps reflectors and apparatus is according to Contract.”

Thirty years after it was built, the original stone dwelling house must have suffered the same deterioration, for in 1857, a new keeper’s house was built, this time of wood. Now housing The fishermen’s Museum, the dwelling looks much the same as it did when it was rebuilt.

In 1827 Isaac Ilsley contracted with Captain Winslow Lewis, of Boston, to “fit up the Light House at Pemaquid Point with ten patent lamps and ten sixteen inch reflectors,” at a cost of $500.00. In 1781, the Frenchman, Ami Argard invented a lamp that used a hollow circular wick and Captain Lewis adapted the French lamp, added a parabolic reflector system and called his light a “magnifying and reflecting lantern”. Lewis demonstrated his lantern in Boston to government officials. It was so superior to the old spider lamp system, that U.S. officials paid him $20,000.00 for his patent and all 59 existing U.S. Lighthouses were fitted with Captain Lewis’ lamps.

However, after French physicist, Augustin Jean Fresnel, invented the Fresnel lens in 1822, it was apparently so far superior to Winslow’s lamp that in 1852 after Congress re-organized the U.S. Lighthouse Service it recommended that the Fresnel lens be used in all new lighthouses and lighthouses needing new lighting. The Pemaquid Point Lighthouse was fitted with a fourth order Fresnel lens in 1856.

For a time, the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse burned sperm oil, a high quality oil that burned bright and evenly. An 1863 receipt shows that 86 gallons of sperm oil and three rods of lamp wicking were delivered to Pemaquid Point. Shortly thereafter, kerosene was burned. A small brick house was built to the south of the tower in 1896, to house the oil that fueled the lighthouse lamps. A tender would sail as close to the rocks as possible, sending a heavy line ashore, and then transferring fuel.

In 1897, a brick engine house was built on the south side of the tower to accommodate a hand operated fog bell. The following year, it was replaced by a new bell that ran with duplicate Shipman oil burning steam engines to ring it. This system lasted one year, when it was replaced by a Stevens striking machine, for which a wooden tower was built to house the weights. The light keeper, at the onset of fog or poor visibility, would wind up the Stevens machine, which brought the weights to the top of the bell tower. The bell rang at regular intervals for six to eight hours as the weights slowly descended.

The Bell Tower and Oil House have been restored by The Fishermens Museum and now house displays. The original fog bell was removed by the Coast Guard in 1937. Through efforts by the Museum and others, a smaller replica bell was donated by the Coast Guard and hangs off the brick Bell House. Once the lighthouse was no longer manned, a gong buoy was moored off Pemaquid Point to replace the stationary bell at the light.
At the time that the Pemaquid Point light station was automated on October 1,1934, the light was fueled by gas. Later the light was fitted with 250 watt electric bulbs inside the fresnel lens. The 250 watt bulb was made especially for lighthouses and was fitted with a four bulb lamp changer, which turns automatically when a bulb has burned out. An identical fresnel lens, formerly of Baker’s Island Light, is on loan from the Coast Guard and is on display in the Navigation Room of The Fishermens Museum. In the event of a power outage, a series of electric batteries were equipped at the foot of the tower.

The name “Pemaquid” is of Micmac origin and previous to Abnaki names. It is therefore, one of our oldest words. The “pem” or “pemi” means “extending”, i.e., “far out”, while the “equid” means “situated”. The general translation being “It is situated far out”. There are records of actual settlements here as early as 1000 A.D. Those who read the historical accounts pertaining to the exploration and settlement of the New World will become aware of the widespread activity on the North Atlantic Coast, and discover that Pemaquid was an active and thriving community long before the accepted date of August 8, 1607.

The rocks situated “far out” have a violent history and many ships both before the light was established and after have come to a grim end on it’s shores. The first shipwreck to be documented was the “Angel Gabriel” on August 15, 1635. The “Angel Gabriel”, of 240 tons and carrying 16 guns, left Bristol, England with the “James” on June 4th and was headed for New England with passengers, cattle, horses, other domestic animals and supplies for the colonies. Most of our information about the last journey comes from the journal of Richard Mather, father of Increase Mather and grandfather of Cotton Mather, who was emigrating on the “James”.

Mather visited on board the “Angel Gabriel” twice during the voyage. He described her as, “a strong ship, and well furnished with fourteen or sixteen pieces of ordinance.” On a visit on June 29th he recorded, “We were entreated to stay there with their master, etc., and had good cheer, mutton oiled and roasted, roasted turkey, good sack [white wine], etc.” But soon the “James”, a faster ship, parted with the “Angel Gabriel” and headed south for Boston.

On August 14th, the crew of the “Angel Gabriel” dropped anchor at Pemaquid, either in the Outer or Inner Harbor (upriver or below the present Fort William Henry). Most of the crew and passengers went ashore to recover from their two months at sea. Since unloading was a process which would take days, they brought their camping gear (tents, carpets, bedding, cooking utensils) and supplies off the ship. The unloading, including the live stock would start first thing the next day.

At about 6:30AM a terrible hurricane hit Pemaquid, taking crew and passengers completely by surprise. The ship and three or four people were lost, but details of their demise are not found in the records. Richard Mather’s Journal reported, “the Angel Gabriel”, being then at anchor at Pemaquid, was burst in pieces and cast away in this storm, and most of the cattle and other goods, with one seaman and three or four passengers, did also perish therin”.

Two ships carrying paving stone, bound for New York, were wrecked on the rocks of Pemaquid Point. The “Annie F. Collins” was wrecked on May 4, 1891 and the “Alice P. Higgins” was wrecked on September 18, 1893. The three man crew aboard the “Annie F. Collins” was lost, those aboard the “Alice P. Higgins” made it to shore by boat, landing at Pemaquid Light.

On Thursday, September 17, 1903, two ships were lost on the rocks of Pemaquid Point. Fifteen mariners died and only four men were saved in the heavy storm. The wrecked vessels were the “Edmunds”, a mackerel seiner owned by Capt. Willard G. Poole of Gloucester, Mass; and the little coasting schooner “Sadie and Lillie”, captained by Willard C. Harding of Prospect. By Friday morning, nothing but splintered wood and twisted iron remained of the two vessels.

The “Edmunds” (built in Essex in 1887 and grossed 149 tons) went ashore on the eastern side of Pemaquid, while Capt. Poole was attempting to round the point. The wind increased to almost hurricane force, that even the fishing schooner, which was said to be able to weather almost any kind of sea, was unable to live through it. In a few moments she was a helpless wreck on the rocks. Dory after dory were put over the side, only to be broken to pieces in the surf. One of these little boats succeeded in avoiding the rocks and with five occupants headed for shore. Halfway there, a huge wave capsized her and the five occupants were left to struggle fortheir lives in the boiling sea. Two of them reached shore. Of the 16 men aboard the “Edmunds”, 14, including the captain were drowned.
The “Sadie and Lillie”, built in Steuben in 1884, and bound for Boston was of 60 tons gross and 48 tons net, 63.8 feet long, with a beam of 22.5 feet and 6.1 feet in depth.
Two members of the “Sadie and Lillie” were rescued by Weston Curtis, who witnessed the wreck and was able to get a line to her in the pitching and pounding surf, and after a fierce struggle with the waves, two men of the crew were brought to safety. Cap’t Harding remained on board to try to free the schooner, when he was unable to he tried to make it to land, but the line became entangled in the rocks and he drowned.

Another famous wreck occurred at the Point on August 17, 1917 in heavy fog, when the two-masted schooner the “Willis and Guy” struck on the rocks near Lighthouse Point.
Her crew of three were saved, but a hurricane four days later completely destroyed the vessel, scattering her cargo of 216 ton of chestnut coal all over the rocks. The wreck proved a boon for area townspeople, who were able to salvage enough coal to heat their homes the following winter.

Many other adventures have occurred at Pemaquid including a sea fight off the point.During the war of 1812, on the first of September, 1813, the sixteen gun Brig. “Enterprise”, United States Navy, Lt. William Burrows commanding, sailed from Kittery Navel Yard. It was to cruise the middle and eastern Maine coast against the British cruisers and privateers then preying on American shipping in that area.

September 5th, the “Enterprise” fell in with the H.B.M 14-gun Brig. “Boxer” of the Royal Navy, Lt. Samuel Blyth commanding. Both ships spent mush time maneuvering for position in the light winds prevailing, and it was not until 3 P.M. that they engaged, four miles due south of Pemquid Point. Forty-five minutes later the “boxer” with her captian and seventeen men dead, fourteen wounded, struck her colors. The “enterprise” lost her captain, another man was killed, eleven wounded, four of whom died later.

The two ships returned to Portland. The two captains, with Midshipment Kervin Waters who had died of wounds, were buried in Eastern Cemetery at Munjoy Hill with full military honors. This action was witnessed by many of the inhabitants of the southern part of Bristol.

With it’s sharp rocks dividing from the west the entrance to Muscongus Bay, and from the east, at the entrance to John’s Bay, the tower stands 30 feet above ground; its lantern 48 feet above ground, the whole is 79 feet above mean sea level. From this location the light can be seen for 14 nautical miles in clear weather. The white light flashes every 6 seconds with 9,950 candle power and operates with a sun sensitive switch that automatically turns the light on and off at dusk and dawn.

The Story of Pemaquid Light, Rose Cushing Labrie, Hampton Publishing Co.,1961
Inside Bristol, Students of Bristol High School, Twin Village Printing Co., 1953
A Guide to Pemaquid Lighthouse, Hilda Libby, 1975
The Story of Ancient Pemauid, Harold W. Castner, 1950
Bristol-Maine Bicentenial Booklet 1765 – 1965, Bristol Bicentennial Committee, 1965
Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, The Lincoln county News, 1995